What kind of rhubarb root did Rene Caisse use in Essiac tea?

 Turkey Rhubarb v. Indian Rhubarb

This is another important question to ask because it has caused--and continues to cause--conflict, confusion and concern for many people.  The main focus of contention is the Turkey rhubarb versus Indian rhubarb debate.  To make it even more confusing Essiac marketers sometimes use the terms "Turkey rhubarb" and "Indian rhubarb" interchangeably and both are referred to as "Chinese rhubarb" by many, if not most, information sources.  However, let's start out by asking whether either one of these rhubarbs could have been part of the original "old Indian medicine man's formula" that was given to Nurse Caisse by the English woman who was cured of breast cancer. 

In Rene's Caisse's "I Was Canada's Cancer Nurse" she stated that the original formula came from an "old Indian [who] showed her [the English woman] certain herbs growing...in the wilds of Northern Ontario."  Neither Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) nor Indian rhubarb (Rheum officinale) were growing in the wilds of Northern Ontario in the late 1800s.  True rhubarbs of the Rheum genus are not native to North America (originally known as Turtle Island).  These Rhubarbs all originated in Asia and can also be found under the Chinese name Da Huang.  The USDA lists both Rheum Palmatum and Rheum officinale as "Chinese rhubarb". 

True rhubarbs were eventually brought to Europe via the trade routes (e.g., Turkey and India) and planted in gardens.  "Rhubarb is the root of different species of Rheum, growing in the mountains of the Western and North-western provinces of China and in the adjoining Thibetan territory.  Rhubarb occurs in commerce under various names:  Russian, Turkey, East Indian and Chinese; but the geographical source of all species is the same, the commercial names indicating only the route by which it formerly reached the European market.  Previous to 1842, Canton being the only port of the Chinese Empire holding direct communication with Europe, Rhubarb mostly came by overland routes:  The Russian Rhubarb used to be brought by the Chinese to the Russian frontier town of Kiachta; the Turkey Rhubarb received its name because it came to us by way of Asiatic Turkey, through the Levant; East Indian came by way of Singapore and other East Indian ports, and Chinese Rhubarb was shipped from Canton."  [A MODERN HERBAL, first published by Jonathan Cape, 1931, p. 675]  Also, there are Himalayan rhubarbs such as Rheum emodi and Rheum webbianum that are native to India and are therefore referred to as "Indian rhubarb".  The scientific journal Mycoscience reported in July 1994, Vol. 35, that Rheum officinale is a traditional medicinal plant in South East Asia in Indonesia.  It therefore appears that some "Indian" rhubarb (Rheum officinale) comes from Indonesia and may pass through India on its way to western markets.  To make it even more confusing, "Indian rhubarb" is a name applied to numerous native and non-native plants in North America, referring not to the country of India or East Indian trade routes but rather to the American aboriginals which were erroneously called "Indians". 

Rhubarb first appeared in North America in the late 1700s but only as a garden plant.  Rhubarb does not have the invasive characteristics that burdock and sheep sorrel do as it needs to be planted and tended as a garden vegetable.   "The [turkey] rhubarb rhizome official in the British Pharmacopoeia, 1914, must be collected in China and Thibet.  English-grown rhubarb is inferior to the official rhubarb in medicinal qualities.  We still depend upon Northern China and Thibet for Rhubarb."  [A MODERN HERBAL, first published by Jonathan Cape, 1931, p. 676].  Therefore, it is very unlikely that it would have somehow naturally established itself "in the wilds of Northern Ontario" in the first 100 years of being introduced to North America.

However, there are edible plants, indigenous to Canada, that are called "wild rhubarb" or "Indian rhubarb" because of their similarities to garden rhubarb.  They do not belong to the same genus as Rheum palmatum or Rheum officinale, but rather to the Polygonum genus and Rumex genus.  Plants in the Polygonum genus are known by many names in many places as Knotweed, Bistort, American Bamboo (though not a bamboo either), Heartweed, Smartweed, Snakeweed, Serpent Grass, Lady's Thumb, Water Pepper, etc. and, of course, "Wild Rhubarb".  "No species of Polygonum are known to be poisonous."  [EDIBLE WILD PLANTS by Elias & Dykeman]

"The delectable member of the family known as Polygonum bistorta thrives in the dry tundra of Alaska and northern Canada, even north of the limit of trees where Polygonum viviparum is also to be found.  Extremely common in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, on the long McKenzie River and its tributaries as far north as the tree line, is the Polygonum alpinum, which is more usually known there as Wild Rhubarb.  The rapidly and thickly spreading Japanese Knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum, has already invaded the countryside from the Carolinas to Missouri, north to southern Canada and Newfoundland."  [Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier] 

Polygonum viviparum, for example, is an edible native plant of Northern Ontario.  The short, fleshy rhizomes of P. viviparum, also called "Alpine Bistort" or "Serpent Grass", were traditionally eaten by indigenous peoples.  Both roots and leaves of Polygonum bistorta (aka Mountain Bistort) were also a part of the indigenous diet.   Polygonum alpinum, also known as "Alpine Knotweed" and "Wild Rhubarb", has a "rhubarb-like flavor", and the stems and leaves were eaten like rhubarb by indigenous peoples in the north.   [TRADITIONAL PLANT FOODS OF CANADIAN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, p. 220 - 224]  Theoretically, any one of these or other species of Polygonum could have been part of the original "old medicine man's" recipe for the English woman with breast cancer. 

There is an herb of the Rumex genus that is known to North American indigenous peoples as "Indian rhubarb".  Its latin name is Rumex occidentalis and is commonly known as Western Dock.  It is also known as Rumex fenestratus or Rumex aquaticus (Water Dock) since it grows in wet areas.  Unlike Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), which comes from Europe, "Indian rhubarb" (Western Dock) is an indigenous herb to North America.  "Indian rhubarb" grows "across the northern part of Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia...."  Furthermore, in at least one native language, Haida, "the name for [Indian] rhubarb is the same as the name for this species.  The stems and leaves of the young plants, from spring until June when flowering occurs, were, and still are, eaten, usually after cooking.  They were steamed, boiled or fried and eaten alone or with meat or other foods." [TRADITIONAL PLANT FOODS OF CANADIAN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, p. 225]  "Indian rhubarb" (Western Dock) grows in "Northern Ontario" according to this USDA webpage.

As is typical with both the Rumex genus (docks and sorrels) and Rheum genus (rhubarbs), "Indian rhubarb" contains oxalic acid and is in the same genus as sheep sorrel, the most crucial ingredient in Essiac tea.  The medicinal characteristics of the roots of docks and rhubarbs are similar; dock roots are sometimes substituted for rhubarb roots in herbal formulas as they help relieve constipation and they have other similar medicinal properties.  The roots of both docks and rhubarbs contain an antitumor substance called emodin. 

It has been suggested that Turkey rhubarb or Indian rhubarb could have been purchased in Canada in the late 1800s and this appears to be true.  However, Rene Caisse specifically stated that the "old Indian medicine man's" herbs were growing "in the wilds of Northern Ontario", which would indicate that they were not purchased.  Rene Caisse learned about the original native remedy from an English woman who had breast cancer.  When Rene Caisse wrote down the herbs in the original medicine man's formula, could it be that she wrote the words "Indian rhubarb" or "Wild rhubarb"?  If so, did those terms refer to native herbs or to imported herbs?  Unfortunately, Rene was so secretive about the Essiac formula we will probably never know the whole story. 


Now on to the next question:  Which is better--Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) or Indian rhubarb (Rheum officinale)?  First of all, let's rule out common garden rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum), which has long been known to be significantly less potent than palmatum or officinale.  Most herbal sources--both modern and traditional--usually only mention Rheum palmatum (often called Turkey rhubarb, Turkish rhubarb or Chinese rhubarb).  Therefore, it appears that Turkey rhubarb from the mountains of China has been the popular choice.  However, it appears from the research of Sheila Snow and Mali Klein that Rene Caisse used both Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) and Indian rhubarb (Rheum officinale).  Near the end of her life, though, when she was not able to get out and about, Rene had her best friend, Mary McPherson, purchase Turkey rhubarb and had Mary make the tea for her patients.  However, it appears that the formula she sold to the original Resperin Corporation may have contained Indian rhubarb (Rheum officinale).   According to Mali Klein:  "We shall never know what she wrote on the paper that was finally given to the Resperin Corporation.  When they began marketing their version of Essiac, their formula included only the four main herbs; they were using Indian rhubarb and the Burdock ratio was high."  [THE ESSIAC BOOK, p. 24] 

It all seems to boil down to this:  The people selling Essiac with Indian rhubarb root often state that Rheum officinale is the best and correct herb--and the people selling Essiac with Turkey rhubarb root may claim that Rheum palmatum is the best and correct herb to use.  However, herbalists, who are more concerned about the medicinal properties of herbs than marketing strategies, usually agree that they are both about the same medicinally and both are better than common garden rhubarb root.  The main difference that anyone can discover for themselves is that various rhubarb root powders may taste and smell significantly different depending upon their latin name and where they are grown.  In other words, it's a matter of personal preference.  A friend of Mary McPherson reported that Rene eventually changed to Rheum palmatum (Turkey rhubarb) because it was not so bitter and it tasted better. 

The ongoing debate between marketers of Essiac tea about the differences between Turkey rhubarb and Indian rhubarb appears to distract from a much more significant part of the Essiac formula--the necessary inclusion of Sheep Sorrel roots.  You can find more information on this very important subject in the Essiac FAQ section.

"We all have the right to benefit from Essiac because no one can stop us making it, no one can stop us taking it and no one can stop us deciding how and when we're going to do it."  [THE ESSIAC BOOK by Mali Klein, 2006] 


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